'Dusting' - US teenagers' use of dust cleaner to get high - is spreading
Abuse of chemical-laced compressed-air product, easily bought in shops, can cause brain damage and is implicated in crash that killed girl, five
With one blast from her can of chemical-laced compressed air, the girl was in wonderland, a short-lived but utterly addictive hallucinatory state.
It was a quick and easy high, and it couldn't have been cheaper: She was swiping the cans of computer dust cleaner from a convenience store. But by the time the US schoolgirl's four-month binge was over, her life had been irreparably altered.
"I have some brain damage from it," said the girl, 17, now living in a recovery home at the Rosecrance drug treatment centre in Rockford, in the Midwestern state of Illinois. "My memory is very skewed. I really have to think a lot more. I'm a bright kid. I know that. I get good grades and work really hard, but I can tell the difference."
The wages of "dusting" can be severe indeed, and they're not confined to the user.
In the most recent of a string of cases bringing the dusting craze to prominence, police have charged Carly Rousso, 18, of Highland Park, Illinois, with being under the influence of "an intoxicating compound" last week when she allegedly drove her car onto a pavement and fatally struck five-year-old Jaclyn Santos-Sacramento. Investigators are looking into whether that compound was the same kind of compressed air thousands of teenagers are using to get high.
Charged with just a minor offence, Rousso is not in custody. But the investigation continues, and authorities have said they may seek more serious charges in the case as they wait for the results of toxicology tests. Her first court appearance is scheduled for Friday.
While the overall use of chemical inhalants has held steady in recent years, experts have noticed worrying mini-trends. More girls are picking up the habit, they say, and more users are gravitating towards computer dust cleaners.
Harvey Weiss, executive director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, said dusting produces an intense, almost immediate high - a fleeting burst of pleasure that is easy to obtain and easy to conceal. "It lasts a short time, so you can do it at school, driving, whatever," he said. "You can just stick a can in your mouth and do it."
Experts say inhalants are typically more popular among younger teenagers - the authoritative Monitoring the Future study has consistently found that 13- to 14-year-olds use them more frequently than older children - because they're cheap and easy to get, either at home or in a store.
Illinois has tried to combat that with a law that bars children under 17 from buying products that contain intoxicating chemicals without a parent's written permission, and some stores restrict purchases to those who are at least 18.
Manufacturers of dust cleaning products add "bittering agents" to their formulas, hoping the harsh taste will curb abuse, but drug counsellors say that doesn't appear to have had much of an effect.
"That would not be a deterrent for an adolescent looking to get high," said Carlene Cardosi, an adolescent unit coordinator at Rosecrance.
Matthew Howard, a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina who studies inhalant use, says dust cleaner has come into vogue among US teenagers only during the last decade and that users believe it provides a more potent high than other products. The sensation is akin to being extremely drunk, he adds, while the actions that sometimes follow are similar to those resulting from alcohol abuse - risky sex, violence and driving while intoxicated.
"It's very disinhibiting," he said.
It's also very dangerous. The spray itself comes out cold enough to freeze a user's hands or larynx, Howard said. The chemical agents in dust cleaners can cause brain damage or stop a person's heart: they have been implicated in a third of inhalant-related deaths in the state of North Carolina and about two-thirds of those in Florida.
"People who use it don't realise how addictive it is," said Stella Wilson of the adolescent chemical dependency programme at Alexian Brothers Behavioural Health Hospital in Chicago.
"Chronic exposure can lead to really horrible physical effects, and you can have heart failure with one use."